Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Letter (Pismo)

Pismo (The Letter)

Directed by Matvei Zhivov, Canada/Russia, 2007, 17 minutes
DC Shorts Film Festival Showcase 2

The Letter, a short film set in World War II Russia, ranked among the most interesting of Showcase 2. I’m not sure that it was placed in the right slot or even the right showcase, but I thought it ranked as one of the most notable in terms of what it was trying to do.

The story concerns Stepan, a partisan fighter who is wounded in battle against the Germans, and who, while recuperating in the hospital, hears a litany of sorrows from his fellow patients. One man recounts how he returned home to find his wife in bed with his neighbor. He then points out a man sitting alone at the other end of the room, and tells Stepan that the man was rejected by his wife after returning home with only one arm. All of this prompts Stepan, who hasn’t been home for three years, to write a letter to his wife, Shura, and in effect, test her, by telling her that he has lost both legs in battle and will be returning shortly.

The action switches to the homefront, where a malnourished Shura reads the letter, and tells her two sons to immediately prepare for their father’s homecoming by preparing a wagon for him to sit in (so they can roll him back to the station). As they prepare the wagon, Shura is surprised by the sudden and unexpected homecoming of Stepan, and is further surprised to see how ambulatory he is. When he reveals to her that he wrote the letter as a kind of test, she is crestfallen, and Stepan must engage in an emotional battle with her as bitter as the physical challenge he faces at the beginning of the film. I don't want to spoil the ending for those who still might want to see it, so I'll end the plot description there. Suffice it to say, things don't end well, and audience is left a bit stunned like they've been hit by an emotional freight train.

While the subject matter is heartbreaking, the film itself is a beautiful thing to look at, filled with vistas of the Russian countryside and a rather elaborate and intense battle scene (with what looked like historically authentic WWII armament). I was very impressed with the amount of money devoted to the project and the sweep itself of the story, which played out like a Russian novel in the space of only 15 minutes. I wasn’t surprised to see that it has won at least one festival award for cinematography. Perhaps Russian filmmakers are seeing the power and potentialities of short film?

I was also reminded of what Bill Nichols had to say of both festivals and Iranian cinema in his article, and the feeling of “losing oneself, temporarily, of ‘going native’ in the confines of a movie theater.” I felt this as I watched The Letter. The language, the visuals, the earnestness of the performances, and even the Russian score swept me completely into the world of WW II Russia. This piece of history, in which over 20 million Russians died, still reverberates strongly in the culture.

Lastly, I couldn't help but reflect on the ongoing situations in Iraq (and Georgia) as I watched The Letter. Like any good war film, it reminds us that the price of war is not only felt on the battlefield, but also reverberates in families and relationships when the soldier comes home.


TAN said...

After watching this short film, I asked myself, "Would this film have the same impact on me if it was a "long film?" My immediate answer was that "it would not be the same." It's interesting to me that if the film had been longer, I think that the powerful scenes would have gotten lost among too many others. I find myself deeply troubled when thinking about war and human relationships. War will always leave a mark on everyone. This short film and this subject matter worked very well together, and touched me deeply.

Stone said...

It’s interesting to see how the director uses a war with in a war with in a war in his proverbial “letter” or essay to the audience; with an examination of the three layers of human conflict: inner, outer and environmental. Each layer is a microcosm of the larger. The “inner” conflict induces self doubt or lack of self worth, actions resulting from the “inner” causes “outer” conflict resulting in violent verbal or physical action to one’s self or available catalyst. The inner and the outer are in direct correlation to the “environmental” which applies the initial mental fatigue for self-doubt. And so on goes the cycle. No matter whether the “letter” originates from a soldier on the battlefield or from the ruler of another country the conflict is no different, only its implications."

Anonymous said...

stunning cinematography and amazing that they put this all in such a short playing time... any chance that shorts will become mainstream and in high priced movie houses? very topical with all the brew-ha-ha going on in georgia as well, and scary how things have gotten quiet over there again...

Craig said...

Stepan is described as a "partisan fighter" - does he fight behind enemy lines as the partisans did? That strikes me as a particularly poignant way of bringing out the terrible ambivalence of war that creates such self-doubt and inner turmoil: Front line soldiers have more clearly established roles and traditional protections (Geneva Conventions for example), whereas partisans who fight behind enemy lines have little protections, must engage in constant disguise and subterfuge, submerging their true identity (as soldiers) completely in order to survive in enemy territory. Seems like a particularly effective way of conveying both the intense confusion and self doubt, and increase the willingness of Stepan to engage in the kind of misdirection and subterfuge that has such tragic results for his family.